Revenge porn

Local, state cases show devastation caused via Internet

Michelle Monroe

By Michelle Monroe

Executive Editor

Just
The Facts

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MONTPELIER — Imagine waking up to find your e-mail inbox filled with notes from friends expressing sympathy and support, and even more disturbing messages from strangers commenting on your attractiveness, expressing a desire to have sex with you, or worse.

For women, such experiences have become far too common as former partners – and sometimes current ones –without permission have shared private photos and videos with thousands of strangers online.

In one recent case in Franklin County, a man threatened his partner that if she left, he would post explicit images of her online. She left. He posted. One of the places he chose to post the images was a site where colleagues and customers of her employer were likely to see them.

The state’s attorney filed charges, but the defense argued Vermont’s voyeurism law requires that “no person shall intentionally view, photograph, film or record in any format the intimate areas of another person without that person’s knowledge and consent and under circumstances in which the person has a reasonable expectation of privacy.”

In this case the victim hadn’t consented – her partner would hit her, kick her and deprive her of sleep until she agreed to be photographed, according to court documents.  But she did know the photographs existed.

The defense argued no law had been broken because she had knowledge of the photographs. The state dismissed the charges.

The case, suggested victim’s advocate Kelly Woodward of the state’s attorney’s office, is a prime example of the problem with the current statute.

It’s a problem the legislature may well change this session.

The Vermont House has held a second reading on a bill criminalizing the sharing of nude photos or videos of someone without their consent.

“No person shall knowingly disclose a visual image of an identifiable person who is nude or who is engaged in sexual conduct when the actor knows or should have known that the depicted person did not consent to the disclosure … Consent to recording of the visual image does not, by itself, constitute consent for disclosure of the image,” the bill states.

There are two levels of offense, explained Rep. Maxine Grad, D-Moretown, chair of the House Judiciary Committee. Posting the images is a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in prison and a $1,000 fine.

Posting the images with an intent to harm the person in the photos is a felony and the potential penalties are doubled to two years in prison and a $2,000 fine.

Sharing such images for profit or maintaining a Web site, online service or running an application for the sharing of such photos brings the penalty to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

The bill does provide that minors will be charged under the statute, but their cases would be sent to Family Court. Prosecutors have shown a reluctance to bring child pornography charges against teenagers who share photos of their peers without the consent of the person depicted. Likely because such charges would result in the defendants being classified as sex offenders if convicted. The new statute would allow for punishment without minors then being labeled as sex offenders.

Rep. Kesha Ram, D-Burlington, who proposed the bill, said she acted after being approached by a group of women from Burlington who had had their photos shared on line. The women “faced harassment and felt scared to lose their job or their reputation,” said Ram.

According to Amanda Rohdenburg of Voices Against Violence, one of every 10 ex-partners threatens to post such images to the Internet and 60 percent follow through in a phenomenon that’s become known as “revenge porn.”

“Folks don’t see that as an abnormal reaction to being dumped, even though they should,” said Rohdenburg. Those sharing the images are almost always men and the images are almost always of women, sometimes accompanied by their names, Facebook pages, home addresses and employer information.

“This is an intentional and cruel action,” said Rohdenburg. “They don’t want their partners to have any sense of peace after they leave.”

The sharing of intimate photos between romantic partners has become commonplace with the advent of cell phone cameras. “Congressmen take them and send them to partners,” pointed out Rohdenburg referring to related scandals in the nation’s capital.

While studies show men and women take such photos in equal numbers. There is one crucial difference. “Women don’t share them with their buddies and women don’t post them,” said Rohdenburg. “Women’s bodies are considered community property.”

“You’re being victimized not only by your partner… but by countless strangers,” said Rohdenburg. Perpetrators, suggested Rohdenburg, are getting strangers to harass their ex-partner for them.

Victims can request to have the photo taken down but “if you didn’t take the photo you may not own the copyright,” said Rohdenburg.

Some sites will take down photos for a price. In a recent California case, the operator of a revenge porn site was convicted of 27 counts, including extortion. But oftentimes the operators are outside the U.S., noted Ram.

Rohdenburg argues the phenomenon of sharing intimate photos with romantic partners isn’t new. As soon as Polaroid cameras made it possible to take such photos privately, they were taken and shared. But the very nature of the medium limited the number of people who could see them, she noted. That isn’t true with the Internet.

There now exist communities online where members encourage the sharing of such photos, even when the photos were stolen from the women depicted, as with actress Jennifer Lawrence, whose images were stolen.